Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s farms. Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Ricardo Fernández of Puerto Rico Farm Credit about what happened and how farmers are recovering from the storm.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST: Before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is on the cusp of an agricultural renaissance. Local farms were a bright spot in the island’s struggling economy, offering more produce, milk and coffee than ever before. But since the storm, about 80 percent of the crop value on the island has now been destroyed. For more, we’re joined by Ricardo Fernandez in San Juan. He’s president of Puerto Rico Farm Credit. They offer loans to farmers all over the island. Welcome to the program.
RICARDO FERNANDEZ: Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you’ve been traveling, I understand it, all over the island checking in on farms.
FERNANDEZ: We have.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what have you seen?
FERNANDEZ: A lot of destruction, complete devastation – the poultry barns, for example, some of those barns are completely gone. Where the hardest wind gusts hit, it was like Godzilla came and just pulled everything up from the ground. With the banana plantations, you know, you can see when the weakest palm trees fell and broke – when they started feeling the winds because they’re leaning one way. And then when the hurricane changed direction, then you see the other one’s going to the other side and broken. So you can see the power (laughter) that the hurricane had.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are we looking at in terms of how quickly they can start working again?
FERNANDEZ: It will depend on the crop. For example, the coffee growers – the arabica bean coffee was being harvested right now. So they’re working hard to collect from the ground whatever’s left so they can sell it in the market. So we’re giving them working capital to be able to pay their payroll, and then we’ll start planning for next year’s harvesting because it’s a one-year crop. On the other end, some of the papaya plantations – growers, they also have bananas and plantains. They have younger trees. So if they cut down the banana trees, in eight, nine months they’ll be able to get on their feet.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does this mean for Puerto Ricans and their access to food?
FERNANDEZ: It means (laughter) that we need to rethink our whole food distribution and supply chain. We’re highly dependent in imports. We import 85 percent of our food. And this actually gives us an opportunity to rethink that business model and say, hey, we need to produce more here. We need to have fresh produce, etc., so that we can have enough supplies inland in case this happens again.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where do you think Puerto Rico’s agriculture will be in the next five years?
FERNANDEZ: My main concern is that we’ll have less of the smaller mom-and-pop, family-owned farms. And we’ll see bigger farms. But obviously, you wouldn’t like to see those small farms to go away because they feed the small communities around the island. But I think in a year, we’ll be in – most of it will have come back.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell me what maybe one farmer told you, when he saw you, about what happened to his farm?
FERNANDEZ: One of our ornamental growers, he told me, you know, Ricardo, I couldn’t make it to my farm until four or five days after the event. When I got there, most of my employees had been working there since the day after the storm or the hurricane. And when I asked them, you know, how they were doing, how are their families doing? They all told me they had lost their homes. And even with that, they had been working, cleaning up his farms since that Thursday. So they were putting their own individual situations on the side to make sure that the farm was taken care of so that they can continue rebuilding their lives. And when you hear those stories, obviously, that touches you significantly.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ricardo Fernandez of Puerto Rico Farm Credit. Thank you so much.
FERNANDEZ: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: We return to the Call-In next week with a look at giving. There have been hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes – not to mention, the tragedy in Las Vegas. And many of are wondering how best to help. What do you want to know about what to give and how to volunteer? Do you have questions about where your money is going and how relief needs change with time? Call in at 202-216-9217 with your questions. Be sure to include your full name, your contact info, and where you’re from. And we may use it on the air. That number again, 202-216-9217.